3 Things I Learned About Understanding Men From Having EIGHT Male Roommates

Photo: courtesy of the author
understanding men

Guys and girls are different...but we're also the same.

I loved college. I adored it. I had the time of my life and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing — even the hard stuff. Especially that. Because in the weirdest way — the way, I have learned, life seems to operate — my first and greatest challenge at college led me to the best and most rewarding part of my whole experience. And it can all be summed up in one word: roommates.

I absolutely loathed my freshman year roommates. I attended Harvard, where the administration prides itself on being able to pair up future besties the whole campus ‘round, supposedly with some of the highest satisfaction rates of any school in the country. But man, did they fail me.

I was in a suite of four girls (including myself), and we were oil and water, fire and ice, pickles and porcupines — however badly suited two things could have been, we were that and so much worse. In our suite of four, it took no time at all to devolve to your typical, 3-on-1 mean girl situation. I’d thought I was leaving that gossipy, whispery, giggle-behind-your-hand, I-can-totally-hear-you-from-my-desk world of cattiness behind in high school, and boy was I wrong. 

At first, it was horrible. Tears. Panic. Had I made a terrible mistake? Was I not fit for college after all? I was afraid to go "home" to my room. I spent every second I could outside in class or libraries or anywhere else. I felt adrift, without safe harbor.

And then one day, I moored my little boat in the room down the hall — and I found, suddenly, where I belonged. With three guys.

That was the beginning. They took me in. We watched Red Sox baseball at night (I’m a junkie) alternating with Sex and the City DVDs (pre-Netflix!). They liked the sex, I liked the fashion, we all loved the eye-candy. I’m not a tomboy. I do love sports, and I am athletic, but I like girly stuff too.

Fashion and makeup, Hollywood gossip and goings on — I arrived a California beach baby and stayed one. But these guys — a varsity athlete from New York, a wonderfully eccentric anglophile from Colorado, an exceptional human being and sports fanatic from Maine — made me one of their pack. For whatever odd reason, we fit.

They were brilliant, all of them, each in his own wonderful way. We trekked together through blizzards to eat dinner every night in Annenberg, the Hogwarts-esque Cathedral only Harvard freshmen can "sup" in. I studied in their room, we went to Sox games, explored Boston, they even showed me the east coast’s version of a “beach” (I wasn’t impressed, but the company was great!). They became my family. Midterms, parties, hookups and breakups — we went through it all together. 

The next year, we made it official. Harvard is tremendous that way, flexible and wonderful and accommodating — we got a five-person suite, four boys (adding another nomad boy we’d adopted from less-than-ideal roommates) and me (with my own bathroom, that was the deal). We continued that way, adding more and more to our motley crew, until senior year, when we became a mighty family of nine — 8 guys and me. We each had single rooms in a three-level suite with two giant common rooms and an outdoor terrace, often covered in snow.

It was the best year of my life. And I learned a ton. 

Here’s the thing. Boys are not so different from girls. When you live with them, eat with them, talk to them into late hours (drunk and sober, happy and sad and triumphant and tragic), you learn that those stereotypes about the boy/girl divide aren’t as set in stone as we think.

True, my girl roomies and I did not get along, but in the end, it may have been more that we just weren’t meant to be, and these guys, these guys were meant to be my people. Here are the three key lessons to understanding men that my 4-year guy-family taught me, tidbits I’ll always carry with me, inside my girl-heart:

1. Boys are sensitive, too.

Boys tease. Boys like to make dirty jokes. Boys talk a LOT about sex. Wanting it, having it, evaluating it, watching porn of it, trying to maneuver situations to get it. Who’s done what. Who’s done who. Yes, boys are very, very fascinated with talking about sex. This is true.

But here’s the thing: it’s almost like just a social ritual. A good fallback topic of conversation, something like classwork or sports scores, that can lead to some easy back-and-forth. When it comes down to it, I swear, guys are as involved in the love and commitment part of relationships too.

They too agonize over why someone hasn’t texted after a date or a lag time in a response to a Facebook message or G-chat. They too wonder what a hookup means; they suffer endless hours trying to dissect comments and gestures; they too can annoy the hell out of their friends by talking endlessly about their crush and what their friends think of discussed-to-death situations. This obsessing and hypothesizing is NOT a girl thing. For every swagger of nonchalance about sex and hooking up, there is an insecure, nail-biting, would-be boyfriend fretting just out of sight.

I cannot tell you how many late night conversations I had with my guys about their various ladies and the who/what/where/why/how of it all. Mostly the why. Why do girls do this or that? As if I was an expert. But I was no more an expert on their ladies than they were on my boyfriends — not that that stopped any of us from waxing endlessly to one another.

I guess the thing that surprised me most was the amount, actually, that my guys talked to each other about getting married and having kids. What ages they planned to be. What they wanted their wives to do (stay at home, mostly, to my utter shock. I told them good luck finding homemakers at Harvard!). I was shocked to see they too worried about this love/marriage/family timeline, just as much as I did. That in many cases, their parents were on them to "figure it all out" just as much as many girls’ parents are on their daughters. 

Also, boys cry. A lot. When they’re with their buddies, when they feel safe, when tough stuff happens or even just when they’re frustrated or annoyed, they break down too. Just like girls. And they worry about their diets (for real). And grades.  I guess what I’m saying is boys are squishy inside. Just like we are.

2. Boys find the fun.

I will say this for sure: living with my guys was fun. So fun. I’m not saying boys are more fun in general, but in this particular experience, they really had a talent for finding ways to make even ordinary, boring stuff completely amusing.

Cleaning up the room? Always done by a series of competitions. We competed at everything. Everything was a game with bragging rights. Who could throw the napkins into the trashcan from further away and with greater accuracy? Who could vacuum quicker, or retrieve more rolls of toilet paper in a week from the Dorm Crew station which only limited you to take two rolls at a time? 

And even though each game felt live or die — it really did — with passions sky-high, and gloating/trash talking an absolute constant, the winners and losers moved on in an instant. Triumphs and hard feelings were forgotten once the victory lap was run. Onto the next.

My guys had a wonderful talent for resolving squabbles that way too. Brash arguments — frank and open — followed by resolution and moving on. Confrontation, resolution, clean slate. Such a far cry from the passive-aggressive, endless grudge-holding subtextual wars I had fought with my roommates freshman year.

One of our roommates had a foot odor issue. Instead of whispering about it behind his back and crinkling our noses just in his eyeline, we told him “Dude, use powder, and be aware of this.” He did, fixed the issue, and didn’t take it personally. Miraculous.

My guys were also super-innovative about things in a way I admired. Instead of constantly fighting over who would have to get up to get the door when people knocked (another staple argument of my freshman year roomies), they invented a pulley system to be able to open the door from the couch. When we played a dorm-wide game of Assassins, they took apart and jerry-rigged super-distance squirt guns.

I have no doubt girls could do these things too but with these boys, it was their first thought to take stuff apart, to invent, to engineer. I never had that as a first instinct before living with them; I do now, and I treasure it. 

3. Boys or girls, we are all people, and you just need to find your family.

My biggest takeaway, in the end, was not that boys were better than girls, or these boys were better than those girls, or that there is some serious gender divide. It was actually the opposite. In the end, college is just about finding your Family, the family you choose, whoever and however you want to compose it.

One of my favorite memories of Harvard is my senior year when all nine of us did a “Secret Santa/Hannukah/Kwanzaa gift exchange amongst ourselves. We bought a little fern and decorated it as a Chrismakuhzaa bush, and we each picked a name from a hat, then got them a joke present and a real present. I have never, to this day, laughed so hard as when my Anglophile gave our History-Buff a John Adams book he’d already read (and which had been sitting around our suite for weeks) as the “real present,” and how we all kept up the ruse as the poor boy tried to pretend he liked it for a gift — until none of us could hold it in anymore.

We also always got each other cakes for our birthdays (photo cakes, usually with a lovely, embarrassing photo of the birthday-boy-or-me) and did little room celebrations. We had pet rabbits (illegally) for a while. Our family was amazing.

And then, of course, there was the time that our neighbors across the hall were stormed by police, hammering their door and yelling “We know about the chickens! We know about the chickens!” We all ran to our door to see what was happening, and they forced the door across the hall open. Chickens in diapers (not kidding) ran out, terrified into the hall. True story.

So in the end, I guess my advice to you soon-to-be freshmen would be this: College is amazing and a great place to find your people. They may not be the people you start with, and they may not even be the kind of people you’d expect, but damn, once you find them? You have the time of your life.


Lauren Horowitz is a screenwriter with the CW Network and has won an enthusiastic following for her innovative, lyrical poetic voice. Her work has won the 2016 Independent Publishers’ Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, as well as Finalist honors in the 2016 USA Book Awards for Best New Fiction and Best New Fantasy, the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Best Young Adult Fiction, and the 2016 International Book Award for Best Fantasy. Lauren studied writing at Harvard University with novelist Jamaica Kincaid, where she won several prizes including the Edward Eager Memorial Prize for fiction and Winthrop-Sargent Prize for writing. Lauren lives in Kauai and Los Angeles.